By Charlie Mitchell
At most Mississippi high schools today, the only cars out front are the principal’s and the secretary’s. Maybe a counselor or two came to work. The coaches’ pickups are over by the field house, where the coaches are inside, rocked back in their chairs, feet on desks, pondering strategy for fall.
It’s summer. Time to rest, recoup, plan.
It’s a long shot, but maybe adding a school newspaper will occur these folks. A real newspaper. Ink on paper. Everything.
OK, it’s not likely.
After all, the academic leaders are just now digesting their graduation numbers, looking over test scores, trying to figure out where to find a math teacher. They’re meeting with Little Susie about why she didn’t quite make it to graduation this year and trying to convince her try again. Then, there’s another meeting with the band director to try to convince her the marching uniforms can last one more year. It’s time to prepare reports for the state and for the school board, who care exclusively about two things – the budget and standardized test results.
There’s no premium for innovation. There’s no incentive to try to do something new or challenging.
Even if there were, it would not be empowering students to write words and take pictures that might be seen out in public. Think of the risk! Hey, there’s plenty of trouble without looking for more. It would be like a boxer leaning into a left hook. And, in addition to the cost (unbudgeted), there’s the issue of begging a teacher to take on one more extra responsibility.
But let’s go back to the field house.
Say a renegade school board member broaches the topic of, say, a reduction from 10 football coaches to nine or even eight.
“Have you lost your mind?” would be the response. The shock and awe of such a notion would be followed by the list of benefits – all 100 percent true – that athletic programs bring to the education setting.
Students do gain from sports. Teamwork, problem-solving, camaraderie, leadership, fair play. Respect for others. Depth of character. A sense of service beyond self, thinking beyond the moment. Athletes also serve as a focal point of school spirit and identity.
Very good things. Every one of them.
Guess what? School newspapers can do that, too.
But the news on school newspapers isn’t good. Last week it was reported that seven of New York City’s 560 public high schools are now members of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, which has awards programs and offers workshops and guidance. That’s a 92 percent decrease since the 1970s.
No numbers could be found for Mississippi on the proportion of public high schools with broadcast or print journalism programs. There are exceedingly strong school newspapers in the university towns, Starkville and Oxford, and pockets of excellence elsewhere. Anecdotally, however, more and more Mississippi schools mirror New York – with fewer papers and/or one or two editions a year.
It should be noted that private schools are not following this trend. Even though they have tighter budgets, most have school newspapers and the administrators understand the enhancement of the education experience that results. Yes, there is the risk (actually, it’s almost a guarantee) that not everyone will like every word or photo printed. But, again, if folks aren’t complaining about the newspaper, they’ll find something else.
Some might read this column as a pitch for more young people to explore journalism careers. That would be nice, but the media job market is what it is. Anyway, the truth is that today’s physicians, educators, business entrepreneurs, engineers and artists were the editors and staffers of their high school publications. Maybe a couple became journalists, but that’s lagniappe.
Here’s the deal: Success in many career fields is not determined by knowledge of math, science and history alone, but accompanied by elevate levels of self-awareness plus skills in leadership, spirit and, of course, meeting deadlines.
The world will not instantly become perfect if every high school invests whatever it takes to create and perpetuate a superior high school newspaper. To focus on “book learning” at the exclusion of activities – including sports – that build character is a step in the wrong direction.
And you can print that.
CHARLIE MITCHELL is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.